'Engineered' Iranian Elections Provide an Opening for Criticizing Status Quo

Iranian elections are hardly free or fair by Western standards. But even with limited choices and a heavily securitized environment, the brief presidential campaign is providing an outlet for harsh criticism of the status quo, including topics -- such as the nuclear file -- that are usually banished from public discourse.

The last-minute decision by nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili to enter the race made it inevitable that the nuclear question would be raised as well as his stewardship of the Iranian side in P5+1 negotiations.

In a third and final televised debate among the eight candidates on Friday (June 7), Jalili's rivals pounced on his failure to achieve even a minimal confidence building agreement with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany in a half dozen meetings over the past two years held in Istanbul, Baghdad, Moscow and Almaty, Kazakhstan.

"You want to take three steps and you expect the other side to take 100 steps, this means that you don't want to make progress," said Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister who remains a close adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "This is not diplomacy... We can't expect everything and give nothing."

Velayati and former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani both implied that they would have done far better had they been in charge. Rowhani, who negotiated with the Europeans from 2003-2005 when he held Jalili's post, has repeatedly noted that during his tenure, Iran continued to make progress on its nuclear program without being referred to the Security Council and hit with heavy sanctions.

The sanctions have seriously impacted the Iranian economy -- the major topic of the presidential campaign. Thus, even if Khamenei had wished to prevent discussion of the nuclear question, he would have had a hard time succeeding.

Iran is an authoritarian state that jails journalists, former presidential candidates and others who have questioned the system's use of religion as a cloak for maintaining a certain group in power. But it says something about both the system and the character of Iranians that the door to freedom of expression is not completely shut.

That veteran political figures such as Velayati and Rowhani are using their candidacies to criticize the status quo reflects their understanding of Iranians' need to have an outlet for their anger as well as the loopholes the election campaign provides.

It is hard to be just a little bit free any more than a woman can be just a little bit pregnant. Thus, Iranians are getting to hear a surprising indictment of the centerpiece of Iranian foreign policy as they prepare to cast their votes on June 14.

No one knows whether the criticisms voiced in the campaign will cause Khamenei to shift position in the negotiations. The United States and its negotiating partners could make it easier for him by sweetening the deal on offers which call for Iran to stop making 20 percent enriched uranium, send out much of its stockpile and suspend operations at the underground Fordow facility for six months. In return, Iran would get relief of sanctions on gold and other precious metals and petrochemical exports, repairs for civilian airplanes and no new UN or European Union sanctions related to the nuclear issue.

While not as significant an offer as Iran might like - there is no mention of banking or oil export sanctions which are doing most of the damage to the Iranian economy -- any reversal of penalties would boost Iran's battered currency as well as public confidence.

The debates have also been interesting for what they reveal about whether the election is really a "selection" of a candidate anointed by Khamenei. If the Supreme Leader indeed prefers Jalili -- as some pundits in Iran and outside have declared - then why would Khamenei allow his favorite to be pummeled on state television along with the policies that the Leader supposedly supports?

Given the experience of 2009, it is impossible to say whether and to what extent the outcome of this election will be manipulated. It is unclear whether any candidate will be deemed to have won 50 percent of the vote or whether there will be a run-off on June 21.

But this much is clear: if Iranian elections are supposed to follow a script, someone of the actors seem to have forgotten their lines.

Barbara Slavin is Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, where she focuses on Iran. She tweets @BarbaraSlavin1.